'Polisse' Shows Effects of Working for the Child Protection Unit

Polisse makes clear repeatedly that the multi-faceted problem of child abuse is both obvious and suppressed, common and extraordinary, a sign of deviance and also, tragically, a sign of normalcy.


Director: Maïwenn
Cast: Karin Viard, Joeystarr, Marina Foïs, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Maïwenn, Karole Rocher, Emmanuelle Bercot, Frédéric Pierrot, Arnaud Henriet, Naidra Ayadi
Rated: NR
Studio: Sundance Selects
Year: 2011
US date: 2012-05-18 (Limited release)
UK date: 2012-06-15 (General release)

"I don’t jerk the little one off every night. The social worker told me to stop." Spotted shaking her child on the sidewalk, a young mother (Audrey Lamy) sits quietly in the Paris Child Protection Unit's office, as two detectives stare at her from across their desk. "Do you realize what you're saying, Mrs. Leclerc?" asks Nadine (Karin Viard), while her partner Iris (Marina Foïs) frowns, her hands over her mouth. "Do you realize that what you do to your boys is rape?"

Mrs. Leclerc looks baffled. As the detectives press her further on her understanding of rape, they appear less horrified than resigned. They hear stories like this every day, according to Polisse, which is, an opening title declares, "based on real life cases handled by the Paris Child Protection Unit." A kind of overview of the Unit's experiences, the film cuts from case to case, peers into detectives' personal lives, notes the effects of one sphere on another. As much as the cops mean well, as invested as they are in protecting children from terrible predators, from wrong-headed or inept parents, from forces that appear all but inevitable in a world where, one girl announces, "Aged 14, you fuck, you suck, you live." The camera pans slowly from Detective Baloo (Frédéric Pierrot) to Nadine, their faces as blank as they can manage. "Watch some TV," the girl instructs, "Try to get with it, get an update."

Polisse -- which opens in theaters on 18 May and will be available on demand on the 25th -- structures its own update in a way that's at least a little familiar, as the unit is documented by a photographer, Melissa (played by writer-director Maïwenn). She goes through some regular stages, at first shy and set apart from her subjects, then increasingly drawn into their emotional tangles. The cops make fun of her (offering to get her "organic" croissants when they go out for the morning food run) and suspect she's exploiting them and the victims they mean to rescue. "Have you seen the photos you've taken since you've been with us?" asks Fred (French hiphop artist Joeystarr). He goes on to raise a question that applies to Maïwenn's film as much as to Melissa's photos: "All I see is her going click-clack-clack whenever a kid starts crying," he complains. "That's not what we do. It's more complex than that."

Fred is concerned that she's not getting "the right shots," not revealing how the team does its work but instead only sensationalizing scenes that appear "gritty or miserabilist." The film does show complexity, and to its credit, doesn't sort out many details. It certainly offers little in the way of resolution, as its several storylines bump into one another more than they come together. Some of these are trite: Melissa (rather too) literally lets her hair down (and takes off her fake eyeglasses, an effort, she confesses, to be taken "seriously"), then begins a romance with one of the detectives: both are married, with children, and you're left to imagine effects on those children.

Other stories hint at the dismal, disturbing contradictions that make up diurnal assignments: "I gotta be up at four to snatch Romanian kids from their family," Baloo yells at his wife (Carole Franck) during an argument that's begun when she asks him to have a conversation with her instead of their usual wordless sex. "I gotta put them in a shelter, I gotta be a total asshole to them, maybe destroy their lives, so I start at four!" And still others are heartbreaking: even as Iris and her husband struggle to have a child -- she takes fertility pills and keeps ovulation charts, he gripes about the scheduled shagging, "when the fridge says so" -- she's simultaneously struggling with bulimia, a condition that makes grim sense amid all the chaos she faces every day at work.

At the same time that Polisse uncovers cops' problems and efforts to "cope" (dancing at a night club after they recover a baby kidnapped by his "junkie" mother; getting that group of frightened Romanian kids to stop crying and even sing songs on the bus, during a long ride from the raid on their home to the municipal shelter), it never loses sight of that chaos. While Fred worries that Melissa might not be getting the "right shots," the movie seems less focused on such "precision" than on showing lots of causes and effects, and not always in that order.

Kids are encouraged to lie and also to tell the truth (whatever that might be), perpetrators assume their rightness even as you can't believe their ignorance ("Children have a right to sexual liberty," a father explains, "I don't rape her, she gives herself to me"), or find creative (or utterly mundane) ways to attack their interrogators. When Nora (Naidra Ayadi) asks a teenaged girl she and Fred are transporting to the station, "You realize you helped those guys rape your friend? Aren’t you ashamed?", the girl smirks, "Shut your face, quit sucking my pussy off." The cops take but half a moment to be shocked before they remake the point. The shot is too close and a little distorted, Fred in the foregrounded driver's seat with the girl's fuming face just behind him, as he sums up: "We've got videos of you taking your friend down there, into the garage where your three buddies raped her and you mouth off at us?"

Later, Nora is confronted by another sort of instruction, when a Muslim father insists on his right to arrange his daughter's marriage, as well as Nora's own Muslim duty to "Go home look after your husband and kids." She rejects his reading of the Qur'an ("You taint us"), as well as Baloo's brief attempt to intervene. "Is there a problem here?" "No problem!" In other words, as Polisse makes clear repeatedly, the problem is both obvious and suppressed, common and extraordinary, a sign of deviance and also, tragically, a sign of normalcy.


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